Upfronts: A Strange Trip

The post-strike presentations reveal a wide range of strategies

In what was one of the strangest upfront weeks in recent memory, the networks went about peddling their wares in very different ways.

After the writers' strike intensified already growing concerns about network television viewership, the question of how strong the Big Five's hold will be on ad dollars remains.

At an NBC press conference announcing Jimmy Fallon's hire, Saturday Night Live chief Lorne Michaels described why he's not as worried about rival late-night shows. His comments could sum up network television's challenge as a whole. "The enemy now is cable and Guitar Hero," he said.

With the sense that there are bigger fish to fry, upfront week was a decidedly different affair. "There wasn't the hoopla," says Warner Bros. chief Peter Roth. "The strike had a profound impact in an already fragmented time in television history."

The upfronts will be remembered for having fewer clips of new shows, less talent in attendance and fewer parties. But each of the five presentations was very different.

NBC kicked things off Monday evening with its "NBC Experience," which led ultimately to the network's traditional party at the Rockefeller Center ice rink and a funny standup set from Conan O'Brien. Many questioned the effectiveness of any specific message.

ABC's Tuesday presentation was light on talent and glitz, heavy on television. Entertainment president Steve McPherson reiterated his commitment to—gasp!—producing costly pilots, and took the Lincoln Center audience through an hour that focused on not much else than his schedule.

The CW followed with a party-first, presentation-second affair that probably will be rethought next year. After a Maroon 5 performance, network chief Dawn Ostroff ran through the schedule and new shows, but it was tough to convey the message to an often-distracted room standing around in a night club.

CBS's approach on Wednesday at Carnegie Hall was to tout the wide reach of the CBS Corp. Entertainment President Nina Tassler took the stage in the second half of an hour-plus presentation to introduce new shows and lay out the schedule.

Fox, dealing from a position of strength with American Idol, wrapped the week on Thursday at City Center and broke some news. Network brass announced that their two rookie shows would run with limited commercial interruptions in a test called "Remote Free TV." And unlike the other broadcasters, Fox held a traditional big presentation/big party, and rolled out the talent big-time.